Five years ago, I came up with a five year plan. I wanted to work at Etsy, to keynote Velocity, and as a stretch goal that I was sure would never actually happen, to write an O'Reilly book. Three years after that, I was surprised to find that I had accomplished all of those things. I knew that I needed a new five year plan, but instead I ended up getting super burnt out and feeling really flaily and unproductive, which is like having a new plan, if by "plan" you mean "literally the opposite of a plan".
Lots of people in my life recommended that I give myself some time to recover from burnout before jumping into anything big. I tried to do that, but slowing down after years of pushing myself at 100% or more is difficult, and I felt like I hadn't accomplished anything significant or meaningful in the past two years. On top of that, I still haven't come up with a new plan, unless by "new plan" you mean "continually beat myself up for not having a better plan". (Perhaps the first step of my plan should be to look up the definition of the word plan, since I'm clearly a little shaky on that.)
Slowing down is hard, but it seemed like a necessary first step, soI started thinking about how I'd approached career planning and direction in the past. I realized that in the first part of my career, I was able to figure out where to go next by looking at big problems I was facing at the time. If I found out I was being paid 50% of the average market rate for someone with my job title/experience/location? The new plan was to get paid fairly. If I found myself at a place where I wasn't being challenging work because "the men on the team wouldn't think that was fair to them because you're 'a girl'"? The new plan became to find a job where I'm not being blatantly denied career opportunities because of my gender.
When I was struggling to deal with problems that obvious and significant, it was really straightforward to come up with a plan: Fix the Big Broken Thing (and don't regress to any previously Big Broken Things in the process). Thankfully over the years I've learned a lot, gotten a lot better at recognizing red and yellow flags when I'm job searching, and it's been a while since I've had to deal with Big Broken Things like that. Which is mostly great, except now I'm struggling to figure out what I want to do next - not in the sense of job searching but rather in terms of what I want to focus on and where I want the next five years of my career to go.
Without an obvious Big Broken Thing to fix or a clear direction to go in, I tried instead to start thinking about how to set myself up to even be in a position where I could think about accomplishments again. Many of the big changes that I've gone through recently, in both my personal and professional life, have felt like they've eroded my foundation, my sense of stability and security in my life as a whole. Of course it would be difficult to think about running forward when even standing still feels shaky. Therefore, before I start thinking about what I want to accomplish next, I should instead focus on building up a new foundation. For me, that is starting to look like:
- Being in a place where I'm able to feel physically and psychologically safe, in a macro sense as well as a micro one
- Having time to do the things that are important to me, without having multiple hours per day wasted "because of train traffic ahead"
- Enough space that the activities I want to do feel like first-class citizens, instead of being shoved into corners
- Also enough space that I can have some physical separation between areas where I want to work and focus and feel productive, and areas where I want to relax or sleep
- Communities of people who I can share ideas with and who I feel safe around
- Having gotten my genders and my brain sorted out, because it's probably easier to think about being productive when you're able to have thoughts beyond "ugh dysphoria" and "oh no I'm sad"
Having spent a couple years focused on things like burnout and transitioning and various other life-related things, it feels reasonable that it would take at least a couple more years to get to the point where I feel like I have a new foundation that is truly stable and sustainable. The harder part is going to be mentally letting myself take that time, and not trying to force myself to do more and be more productive right away. It's important to remember that we have worth beyond just the work we do and the things we produce, and to focus instead on building the foundations of a healthy, balanced life.